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Lost at sea

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 1994

LANTANA -- At 4:25 a.m. March 13, 1993, a call came into the 911 emergency center in Palm Beach County.

An operator took the call, but could hear nothing. Nothing but the crackle of static.

The weather had been clear and calm two days earlier when Charles and Betty Muer, joined by lifelong friends George and Lynn Drummey, set sail from the Bahamas for the trip back to Florida. Now, in the early morning darkness,they were losing a desperate battle against 30-foot seas and winds of 70 miles an hour.

At 4:27 a.m., a second call to the 911 center. Again, nothing. Nothing but static.

It was the last anyone would hear from Charley's Crab.

One year later, no trace of the 40-foot ketch or its four occupants has ever been found. They remain unaccounted for -- presumed victims of the "Storm of the Century." (See related story)

"They almost made it home," said the Muers' daughter, Susan.

Chuck Muer was president of C.A. Muer Corp. of Detroit, a $65-million company that owns more than 20 seafood restaurants in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. George Drummey owned Drummey & Associates, a manufacturers agent for an automotive supplier.

"It's unusual not to find anything," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Jim Howe. "Usually there's something, if not a body, then something that fell from the boat."

But the last presumed location of Charley's Crab was in the Gulf Stream, that river within an ocean a few miles off Florida's east coast. The Gulf Stream runs swiftly north from here, widening on its long journey to the North Atlantic, helping the sea keep its secrets.

The Gulf Stream, notes Howe, "can take things a long way away."

"It hit like a wall"

Friday, March 12, the first day of her vacation, Susan Muer was staying up late, having a few cocktails with friends she had just picked up at the airport. She remembers a beautiful, if windy, night.

Her parents had just begun a vacation, too, sailing in the Bahamas with the Drummeys, and weren't due back at the Muers' condo in Palm Beach until Sunday. There were reports that a storm was coming, Susan Muer remembers, "but we didn't realize its magnitude."

Her parents were experienced sailors. Chuck Muer spent much of his life sailing on Lake St. Clair, northeast of Detroit, and the last 30 years sailing in Florida and Bahamian waters.

"We used to sail in the Bahamas every year," Susan said, "sometimes for weeks at a time, the whole family."

Gale warnings had been posted that day, calling for winds up to 47 knots. But Susan wasn't worried about her parents. Surely, she thought, they were anchored safely back at Chub Cay, near the Berry Islands.

"I thought, Dad has too much sense to get caught in a storm like this. My father was a very even-keeled guy. He would never take anyone out where he knew there was risk. I thought they were coming back Sunday, and I thought they might even fly."

But there was something Susan didn't know. The Drummeys wanted to attend a party in Palm Beach on Saturday night, so the two couples had set sail a day early.

As she relaxed with her friends, Susan Muer would have been startled to learn this: Just a few miles to the east her mother and father were at sea, heading Charley's Crab toward Jupiter.

From the west, trouble moved fast.

A vast, powerful winter storm was ripping across Florida at up to 70 mph, covering ground twice as fast as a normal storm, spinning off tornadoes and lighting up towering thunderheads with spectacular charges of electricity.

Behind it lay thousands of flooded homes. A flotilla of small boats and large ships was either sinking or taking on water.

As the storm crossed the state, wind speeds were clocked at 80 mph. In Palm Beach, Susan Muer remembers, it was still pleasant about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

"Then about 4:20 a.m. it hit like a wall."

Five minutes later, cellular phone records would show, someone aboard Charley's Crab made the first call to the 911 center.

At the leading edge of the storm, the winds were from the south, matching the direction of the waves in the Gulf Stream. The seas were rolling, relatively smooth.

But as the storm moved eastward, the southerly winds switched direction. Now blowing from the north, they ran head-on into the waves, creating steep canyons of water 20, 30 feet deep.

"When wind opposes sea, the waves build fast," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Howe. "It's the worst thing that can happen."

This violent confluence of wind and water can rip masts and antennae from a sailboat's deck. If the engine loses power, or if there is no engine, the boat will no longer stay pointed into the waves. Soon it will find itself sideways to the huge walls of water.

When that happens, capsizing is almost certain.

"A 40-foot boat sounds big," said Kevin McCarthy of the National Weather Service, "but compared to the power of the wind and waves, it's nothing."

The Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force searched almost a week for Charley's Crab, covering tens of thousands of square miles from the Florida Straits to Charleston, S.C.

They found nothing.

The Muer children hired private planes and searched on their own.

Nothing.

A birthday farewell

His family calls Chuck Muer a careful sailor. But of running restaurants, he once said: "In this business you have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to take risks."

Muer made this thinking pay off. One restaurant opened in 1965 became C.A. Muer Corp., a privately held company in which the Muer family holds a majority of the stock. Annual revenues reportedly total about $65-million.

Along Florida's west coast, Muer was best known for Charley's Crab seafood restaurant on Sarasota's St. Armand's Key. It was sold to a longtime Muer associate before Muer's disappearance.

The rest of the Muer empire apparently has held up in his absence.

"At first everybody freaked out," said Susan Muer, speaking for the six other Muer children in matters involving her parents' estate. "But we knew that if we kept level-headed, if we maintained the standards, ideas, and philosophies my father had, then we'd be okay.

"And we have been okay. In fact, business is up."

Nevertheless, she said, it has become necessary to petition the courts for a finding that Chuck and Betty Muer, both 55, are legally dead.

"My dad is here in spirit," she said, "but I saw the storm. I know they are not coming back."

The Muers' seven children -- many of them sailors themselves -- seem to have come to terms with their loss. But it has taken time, they say.

"People still come up to me and ask me if I think they're coming back," said Susan Muer, now director of marketing for C.A. Muer Corp.

"I know they couldn't have survived, but in some ways, it seems like they're still on vacation. Even though we know they're dead, we always say, Gosh, I wish they would walk in the room right now.

"The good thing about losing them this way, if there is a good thing, is that you will always picture them the last way you saw them."

Susan Muer, 31, remembers her father as "flamboyant, generous, honest, nice."

"I disagree with flamboyant," said Chuck Muer, one of the three sons. "He drove a Chrysler mini-van, after all. But people were drawn to him. He had charisma. I think it was because he had a way of treating everybody like they were the only person in the room."

Betty Muer, says her daughter, was "caring, giving. She was funny, a great story-teller."

The last contact Susan had with her mother was March 6, a week before the storm.

"It was her birthday, and we had a little party. Lynn Drummey was there, too. They grew up together and were best friends."

Chuck Muer and George Drummey did not attend, having started out for the Bahamas. Their wives joined them a few days later in Nassau.

When her mother left, Susan waved. Have a good time, she said.

"My mom and dad dated from the eighth grade on. They were a good match. They grew up together, and they died together."


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